It is one of the most scenic highways in the world, a winding ribbon of asphalt wedged between the mountains and the sea.
The stretch of California 1 at Big Sur cuts through dramatic landscape that has been celebrated by generations of writers. Poet Robinson Jeffers called the area “the greatest meeting of land and water in the world.” Longtime Big Sur resident Henry Miller wrote, “This is the face of the Earth as the Creator intended it to look.” Frequent visitor Jack Kerouac rhapsodized about its “raging coast” and “rough rock creations.”
Whom to Blame?
As writers and photographers like Ansel Adams celebrated Big Sur over the years, an increasing number of tourists, drawn by the various accounts, have descended upon the area.
And many longtime residents, concerned about traffic and congestion, do not know whether to blame those who lured the tourists or the road they traveled on.
The 92-mile highway from Cambria to Carmel, which last year celebrated its 50th anniversary, now attracts more than 3,000 cars a day.
Walter Trotter, 68, a descendant of one the first families to settle in Big Sur, recalled the days when a man needed a horse and a few days provisions in order to visit the area. Trotter considers the opening of the highway the grimmest day in Big Sur’s history.
“The day they finished that highway was the day we lost Big Sur,” Trotter said. “We lost the real beauty of the place to traffic, roads and tourism. It’s gotten worse every decade.”
But while the highway ended the splendid isolation of a handful of long-time residents, it allowed millions of others to enjoy the beauty of Big Sur. It was this dream of democratizing a wilderness that spurred Dr. John Roberts in the early 1900s to lobby for a road through Big Sur.
Roberts, a Monterey physician, frequently traveled by horseback into Big Sur’s Santa Lucia Mountains to care for sick homesteaders, patch up shipwreck victims and vaccinate young children. Roberts dreamed of a coastal roadway to make his job easier and also to open up the majestic beauty of Big Sur to others. While visiting patients he mapped the tortuous wilderness trails of the Santa Lucias and persuaded state Sen. Elmer Rigdon of San Luis Obispo County to back a highway proposal.
Rigdon and Roberts spent years lobbying the state Legislature, arguing they could build the two-lane road for only $50,000 using convict labor. The Legislature eventually supported the project and construction began in 1924 after San Quentin Prison provided hundreds of convicts for work crews. They began in Carmel, under armed guard, blasting and digging their way south, blowing away huge chunks of mountain with explosive powder and clearing away the debris with steam shovels and bulldozers.
Don Harlan, 63, who still lives on the Big Sur hillside his family has owned since the 19th Century, watched the progression of the highway when he was a young boy.
“The first surveyors who planned the road came by boat in a winter storm,” he recalled. “They came to shore on a skiff and the waves were so big one guy didn’t make it. The convicts came later and they lived in camps around Big Sur.
“I remember I was up at our windmill one day and a bunch of cons were working on the road. . . . The superintendent told one that his time was served and he was a free man. The con whooped for joy, grabbed his lunch box and heaved it as far as he could out into our field and then left . . . for freedom.”
Landslides often erased the crew’s work and completing a path through a solid rock mountainside could take months. The road was finally completed in 1937 and the last bridge was built in 1938. Although originally budgeted at $50,000, the final cost was $9 million.
California Gov. Frank Finley Merriam officially opened the highway June 27, 1937, by manning a bulldozer and pushing a boulder off the road.
The publicity attracted a flurry of tourists eager to cruise the new highway, recalled longtime resident Trotter. But the road was almost empty during World War II because of gasoline rationing. By the late 1940s, businesses catering to the new wave of travelers began springing up along the coast.
The landmark restaurant Nepenthe was founded 37 years ago in the cabin that Orson Welles bought for his bride Rita Hayworth.
Bought Cabin From Actress
“They had just married and were driving down from Carmel on their honeymoon when Orson Welles spotted the cabin,” said Kirk Gafill, whose grandparents founded Nepenthe, the Greek word for “no sorrow.” “They pulled over, fell in love with the place and bought it. But they got divorced pretty soon after that and my grandparents bought the cabin from Rita Hayworth.”
Tourism increased as the area was celebrated by a number of writers, Gafill said. Then in the mid-1960s two events galvanized interest in Big Sur and created another surge in tourism. In 1964 Lady Bird Johnson cut a ribbon atop the soaring Bixby Creek Bridge in Big Sur and designated the road the first scenic highway in the country. The road that was once part of Roosevelt Shoreline Highway, which originally had been planned to span the coastline from Canada to Mexico, became California 1.
Then in 1965, “The Sandpiper,” a movie about a Big Sur artist starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, was filmed near Nepenthe and attracted enormous publicity.
“Newspapers and magazines from all over the country wrote about the filming of the movie,” said longtime Big Sur resident Emil White. “They wrote about Burton and Taylor’s drinking and fighting on the set and their stormy love affair. Pretty soon tourists started visiting and asking: ‘Is this where the movie was shot?’ ‘Is this where Elizabeth Taylor did such and such?’ ”
Once Mecca for Bohemians
Nepenthe, which once served as a salon for the small literary community, is now the requisite stop-off point for families in recreational vehicles and station wagons. The residents today also are “more middle class,” Gafill said. At one time Big Sur was a mecca for bohemians and hippies, but during the 1980s bowling leagues at the Naval Station at Pt. Sur replaced recreational drugs as the favored source of entertainment.
Most Big Sur residents do not have television sets because the mountains block reception, but Forrest Childs, owner of the Glen Oaks restaurant, still managed to regularly catch “Dynasty.” Every Wednesday he loaded up his television and a few bags of popcorn into his station wagon and drove up the coast until he and his wife could pick up reception for the show. Childs recently lost interest in “Dynasty” because “it became too unreal” and now only heads north to watch special programs such as the Academy Awards.
While Big Sur has been inalterably changed, some residents are consoled by the fact that many can visit, but few can stay. Monterey County has adopted a stringent coastal plan for Big Sur that permits little additional development.
Vision of Great Beauty
Despite the number of tourists, the highway through Big Sur still affords travelers an uninterrupted vision of great beauty. Cut off from the world by the Santa Lucia Mountains on one side and the rocky coastline on the other, California 1 is a paved promontory between two dramatic forces of nature. Wind-swept cypress trees and towering stands of redwood frame the highway and at spots the crash of the surf drowns out the drone of countless cars.
“People who visit Big Sur talk about how beautiful it is,” said Walter Trotter. “Hell, they don’t have any idea what it was like when it really was beautiful. But so many of them would rather have the conveniences of campgrounds and public restrooms than real beauty.
“Before Highway 1, my brother and I used to take people up into the hills to hunt and fish. Now no one wants to pack horses anymore. They’d rather hop in a four-wheel drive and shoot a deer from the car. They’d rather find a stream stocked by the (California Fish and) Game Department than search the hills for good fishing. They all want something more exciting than just enjoying the beauty.”